Sam Thompson interviews Salah Al Haddad
The formerly blacklisted writer talks about censorship under the Gadhafi regime, seeking asylum in Ireland, and why culture in Tripoli is now “as important as food and water.”
Booker Prize nominee Sam Thompson and Libyan writer Salah Haddad in Tripoli. Photo by Mouhanned Abouhadra
Following the Libyan revolution of 2011, Salah Al Haddad returned to his native city of Tripoli after an eighteen-year exile. He had not been a writer when he left Libya: it was during his years in Dublin that he began to write short stories drawing on his experiences as an asylum-seeker, leading eventually to the publication of his collection Train of Love in 2005. Since then, he has written two novels, Tongues of Flame and Deception, the former a thriller about religious fanatics and the latter a historical allegory whose title refers to the deceits practiced by rulers on their subjects. His work—written in Arabic for Libyan readers—barred him from going home while Gadhafi remained in power, but with the fall of the regime, Libya has become a country where it is possible to live as a writer. Now resettled in Tripoli, Haddad is working on a new novel.
I met Haddad through a British Council project created in partnership with Guernica called “Walking the City,” which paired up writers from the UK and elsewhere and sent them to visit each other’s home cities. Over two days as a visitor in Tripoli, my attention kept catching on the signs of the city’s transformation. The tract of rubble that had been Gadhafi’s compound, and the nearby murals depicting the Brother Leader as a rat or a broken doll; the young men, dressed in military fatigues but carrying themselves like civilians, watching over public spaces to protect the revolution; the red, black, and green Libyan tricolor, treasonous under the old regime but now ubiquitous in the form of flags, bunting, and graffiti; the vehicle license plates, most of which have a smudge of spray paint in the upper-right-hand corner to block out the word “Jamahiriya,” Gadhafi’s term for the Libyan state. Haddad, meanwhile, was keen to move past these everyday surfaces, into deeper and more enduring aspects of Libyan culture. In the Old Town we saw Roman columns from Leptis Magna built into the walls of the alleyways, and walked around the former British Consulate, a grand eighteenth-century building which is now used as a community arts center and public library. This visit counted as research for Haddad, whose novel in progress deals with Hanmer Warrington, the early nineteenth-century British Consul General. Imagining Libya’s past is a way of beginning to imagine the future. “Gadhafi understood the power of culture,” Haddad says in the interview below, “and therefore he cut off all the roots of the culture. To rebuild that culture again will take time.”
A few weeks later Haddad visited Oxford. There we looked for connections between the cities, and found medieval Islamic manuscripts in the Bodleian Library and Libyan archaeological remains in the Ashmolean Museum. We also went to see The Great Gatsby; there’s no cinema in Tripoli at present. Haddad was sorry that his visit didn’t quite coincide with the release of The Hangover Part III, because he has fond memories of seeing the first Hangover film in Dublin. To survive the experiences you go through as an asylum-seeker, he explained, you need to be able to detach yourself from your problems sometimes and just laugh. Towards the end of Haddad’s time in Oxford we sat down and taped an interview, touching on topics that had come up in our earlier conversations. We talked about writing under Gadhafi and in the new Libya, the Arab writer’s relationship with the West, and the past, present, and future of Libyan fiction.
––Sam Thompson for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said before that, under the Gadhafi regime, writers had no way to live, no way to be writers. Can you tell us a little about that, about Libyan culture during that time?
Salah Al Haddad: Yes. The Gadhafi tenure was very harsh on writers, on literature, on culture. Very, very few writers survived; most writers disappeared, were in prisons, or went into exile. Some writers praised the regime through fear, or greed, and the results were disastrous. In terms of stories or poetry or novels, the outcome was terrifying. It was a state that controlled literature, culture, media, and everything. How can literature be flourished under an iron fist? No free press, no competition, no market. Above all, there were no roots for culture as Gadhafi cut off all the roots from an early stage. It was terrifying because none of the culture reflected reality as it was.
There were very few exceptions. Mohammed al-Sheltami, a prominent Libyan poet, was one of them. He was among those who stood up against the tyranny. He paid the price of being neglected, pursued, and jailed.
Guernica: Can I ask you more about your own story? How did you become a writer out of this context?
Salah Al Haddad: It’s all about freedom, inspiration, and having a cause. And the trigger for all those elements was Ireland and its great writers. During my time as an asylum-seeker, Ireland became my second home. I couldn’t write under control. I couldn’t write within red lines, and found myself falling into self-censorship. Self-censorship can be so damaging, because you create a police who are observing you twenty-four hours a day.
Guernica: An internal police.
Salah Al Haddad: Yes, an internal police. And that prevents you from creating or writing anything, anything of value, because to write something worthwhile you have to feel free. You cannot have your mind telling you to stop, saying “stop or else you will find yourself in big trouble.” The only way, for me, was to leave the country for a while and free my conscience. I first left the country in 1994 to Jordan to study and then to Dublin in 1998 to seek asylum after being blacklisted by the Libyan authorities in 1996. And I’m telling you that since my feet touched the Irish soil it was a very long process of struggling for defining who I am and what I want to be. And the turning point was when I went through a big culture shock and during my fighting for a way out of deep depression, I discovered a magic medication. The magic medication was to speak my mind and express myself in a creative way. I can tell you: it helped a lot. By recovering, I have myself a chance to write something about my country. This is what I experienced in Ireland: I felt free, that there was no police observing me. I got that encouragement I needed. I pushed myself to write something about my country, and against this regime.
If you’re not free, then mentally and consciously, it’s very hard to write. When I got that freedom in Ireland, I started writing a short story. It took me about two or three years to write more stories, and then I thought it would be nice to publish them in a book. I connected with one of the publishing houses in Lebanon and I gave them my collection, and I got a letter and approval from them to be published.
Guernica: These were stories written in Arabic?
Salah Al Haddad: They were written in Arabic. The stories deal with the experience of an asylum-seeker who did lose his identity, and was on the brink of losing his religion. Some of the stories are very romantic stories, and some are very political. The message was to tell the world, or at least tell my own people: there is someone suffering as you suffered, for the country.
We didn’t leave the country for pleasure. We did leave the country for something more important than pleasure. We have tried to help, to find a light at the end of the tunnel. To create stories for people back home. What I wanted to achieve out of those stories was, first, healing my wounds by expressing myself creatively. Secondly, telling my people that there is someone suffering as you suffered. Thirdly, exposing the Gadhafi regime and his crimes against Libyan people.
Guernica: You write with a very specific political goal.
Salah Al Haddad: Yes. Writing is not a pleasure in the Middle East, unlike maybe in the Western world.
Guernica: When you say writing is not a pleasure, what do you mean by that?
Salah Al Haddad: I mean that it’s not about getting famous or getting rich. Even if you write a hundred books, you will be the same. [Laughs.] In terms of fame and wealth, you will never change.
Guernica: [Laughs.] Many Western writers might say that writing is not a good way to get rich and famous here, either. But I see the distinction that you’re making. There’s a kind of writing in the Western world which may simply be about pleasing yourself—that might come more naturally to a Western writer. And I’m intrigued by your use of the word ‘pleasure,’ and the idea that pleasure is available to the Western writer that is not perhaps available to an Arab writer. Is that what you’re saying?
Salah Al Haddad: To some extent, yes. What I want to say by using the term pleasure is that I am not writing for getting rich and famous, at the expense of my people. Some Libyan writers sell themselves and their consciences cheaply to the regime, by distorting the facts in order to get a position in government. Of course, most writers, if not all, do write for pleasure. It’s one of the purposes of writing, I think. But it is not so much the case here in Libya.
In terms of readership, we’ve got almost nothing in the Arab world, because the level of illiteracy is very high and the priority of Libyan people is how to keep their heads above the water, not to buy a book or go to cinema to entertain themselves. And this is one of the things Gadhafi has succeeded in achieving. So it’s a battle of surviving, not a battle of entertaining. The importance of culture has not yet been fully realized. On top of that, as a writer in the Arab world, you cover everything financially, not the publishing house. All the costs of publication I must pay myself and sometimes I must distribute my books myself. This is a very expensive and difficult process to go through. So: it’s an adventure! And it’s a risk to go down that road.
Guernica: This question of finding ways to reach people, given costs and levels of illiteracy—when you’d written your first book of stories, did you have any way of telling whether they had succeeded in reaching an audience in Libya?
Salah Al Haddad: Some stories I published in a book and many of those stories I also published online. That does not solve the illiteracy problem. But it is important—they are online, in Arabic. So most of the readers, the Libyan readers, who have access to the Internet can read my stories and react to my stories. Most of them were encouraging me, thanking me. Thanking me for going on with my writing, my fiction. So I got that message from my readers and then it was a big step to write another book. But I could take that step because with encouragement from these readers it was like somebody pushing me forth to do more, and I started to write a novel. I started to write my first novel in 2006 and I finished my first novel in 2010. Four years. It was a historical novel about a certain period of time in Libya in the early nineteenth century. It deals with a kind of, you know, similar dictatorship, a very bad ruler who abused his people and who abused history.
And Gadhafi himself did abuse history. He denied Libya’s history before his military coup in 1969. Moreover, he changed the date and replaced the western and Muslim calendar with his own version of history—he renamed the twelve months, gave them bizarre names. Eventually, I think Gadhafi considered that he was the history; the world was nothing before him.
Guernica: You chose to tell the story by analogy, rather than it being directly about the Gadhafi regime.
Salah Al Haddad: Yes. To make implications to the reality, and make people, you know, connect the past to the present. To make them see if there are kinds of ways out of this disaster. Because this novel deals with a very, let’s say, a very untouchable subject. The subject of religion.
Guernica: This is the novel Deception, right?
Salah Al Haddad: Yes, Deception, yes. It shows that how my people used religion to fool, manipulate and fight each other, and the novel I hope provokes them to think where are we heading. Are we going to the right way or the right direction or the wrong direction? I wanted to make the reader think, just to make them think. To make the reader ask himself questions. That is what good fiction achieves. It is a good achievement.
Deception shows how Libyans have been manipulated throughout history by several parties, internal and external. Deception, in short, is the crisis of Libyans, first and foremost with themselves—and with knowledge, philosophy and science in particular. The story is set in the beginning of the nineteenth century, where Tripoli’s brutal ruler was facing external and internal threats, and the plot comes from when the Americans—Thomas Jefferson—promised through his officials to bring the deposed ruler of Tripoli back into power.
Guernica: What was the reaction to Deception like?
Salah Al Haddad: A very mixed reaction, in Libya. Because this novel, this particular novel was very, ah, exposed, sexually, marked by the use of sarcastic language. The ruler in my novel pretends to his people, publicly, that he is a very religious and holy man, and follows only the rules. But in private, he does everything he wishes. He breaks the rules. He drinks. He does whatever he wants. Libyan people—the majority are very conservative. They’re not used to this kind of style and therefore some people became angry.
Guernica: In that novel you’re writing about sex, religion, and politics. Perhaps the three most difficult topics…
Salah Al Haddad: Some of the most prohibited subjects, yes. So, that’s why I got a mixed reaction. Some are encouraging me and the others are kind of, you know, abusing me. And threatening me.
Guernica: Presumably at that point the regime identified you as being very much the enemy.
Salah Al Haddad: When I gave that book to the publisher, the publisher had to go to have the approval from the Libyan government. That was in 2010, before Gadhafi fell down. The publisher told me it was a big battle between him and the government to get that book published. In the end, he convinced them to publish this book. He convinced them it did not deal with his regime. It was historical, it was set in a different place. What relevance could it have? And in the end—ironically—the publisher got the approval from the government, the Gadhafi government, to publish this book. It was what I hoped. My book deals with a certain period of time in the nineteenth century, so the government thought it wouldn’t be a threat for the regime. If I had written a book like that set in the present, it is not possible it would have been published.
Guernica: That’s very interesting.
Salah Al Haddad: Yes. They didn’t get the message!
Guernica: This is a very old technique writers use, I’m sure. To write historical fiction as a way of talking about their regime while remaining under the radar. Shakespeare did it. Ben Jonson did it.
Salah Al Haddad: Animal Farm. Giving a message, but hiding it.
Guernica: And when the novel was published you were in Ireland, right? Even though the regime ultimately gave its consent to publication, would you have been in danger in Libya at that time?
Salah Al Haddad: I don’t know if I would have been in danger. Whether I would have been in more danger than others. My publisher told me once that a reader approached him and was very angry because the novel was very exposed, sexually. The reader said he brought it into his house and one of his kids, you know, opens and reads it. There have been these reactions, but as a writer of fiction you are not responsible for readers. Your responsibility is to write and provoke questions.
My message is, stop using religion to fool your people. Stop abusing history. The sexual scenes and sarcastic language I included, they were based on a very old manuscript… And the message of doing this? To show that how our society, in the past—so long ago—was more open and liberal and tolerant than today.
Guernica: By writing a sexually explicit, shocking novel with Deception, you’re following in the footsteps of a writer like Joyce, another exiled writer. Living in Dublin, was Joyce an important figure for you? Did his willingness to be sexually explicit set some example for you?
Salah Al Haddad: No, to be honest, no. In writing about sex using sarcastic language and risking reactions from people, I wanted to expose the hypocrisy of our rulers. This is nonsense when you pretend in public that you are clean and following the rules of your religion, or whatever rules you set. It shouldn’t be like that. Hypocrisy like this should be exposed. Your people should know everything about yourself. So, as a writer, I expose.
My message is, stop using religion to fool your people. Stop abusing history. The sexual scenes and sarcastic language I included, they were based on a very old manuscript written in the twelfth or thirteenth century. And the message of doing this? To show that how our society, in the past—so long ago—was more open and liberal and tolerant than today. We have been going backwards. I did not make these sexual scenes. They are not mine. They are there in life.
Guernica: In writing them, you wanted to recover a culture that was more open, more frank.
Salah Al Haddad: More frank culture, yes. The kind of sexual scene I wrote, based on a 12th or 13th century manuscript—these kind of manuscripts were written at a request from the Muslim rulers in the past. These Muslim rules were entertaining themselves and wanted to read about sex. They weren’t scared or afraid of their people, or even God.
Guernica: Writing in a politically purposeful way, is there a sense in which the Arab uprisings, the Arab spring, the fall of Gadhafi, that this is what you were writing for? If you were writing against the regime and the regime is now gone, do you feel a loss of purpose? Were you always writing to that specific purpose?
Salah Al Haddad: Not particularly to that purpose. I say that I write to express myself in a creative way and to make people ask questions. Hypocrisy did not disappear with the Arab Spring. In my second novel, which was published in 2011 before the uprising, and which I started writing in the summer of 2010. In that novel I was predicting that a kind of change would be happening in our society, but also that our changed society could be stolen, or hijacked by the extremists. The second novel deals with the most secret religious organization.
Guernica: This is Tongues of Flame, a modern day thriller novel.
Salah Al Haddad: Yes, a kind of thriller novel. And one of the predictions in the novel happened. In the novel, the interior minister is killed. And he was killed in the beginning of the first few months of the uprising.
Guernica: And how were you able to predict that?
Salah Al Haddad: Just accidentally. An accident of fiction.
Guernica: This idea about religious fundamentalist groups stepping into a kind of vacuum of power. It is prominent in Tongues of Flame. It’s something you worry about?
Salah Al Haddad: Yes, I hope that prediction will not happen in Libya, because if it happens, it’s going to be a disaster. I wrote that the country will be controlled or would be manipulated by these kinds of extreme religious groups. It is a risk.
Guernica: In the elections, the first elections of 2012, there was a fear that religiously extreme parties would come into power. I think I am right in saying that didn’t happen?
Salah Al Haddad: Yeah, it didn’t happen. They elected the opposite, the moderate parties. But these people, the religious extremists, don’t believe in democracy. Democracy for them is just elections, numbers, a bridge; a tool to master the world with what they claim are God’s rules. And if they feel that democracy is a threat to them, they might bring their weapons and make a military coup.
Guernica: Perhaps we could talk more about Libyan culture. It seems to me, that throughout my lifetime, it’s been the case that when Westerners talk about Libya they don’t tend to talk about its literature, its culture; they talk about its political problems, about dictatorship, and—post 2011—the problems of building a new state. This is all important, but one thing my visit to Tripoli made clear is that the West overlooks this very old and deep culture that Libya has. How would you characterize the culture of Libya, if that’s possible.
Gadhafi understood the power of culture, and therefore he cut off all the roots of the culture. To rebuild that culture again will take time.
Salah Al Haddad: We used to have probably a full meaning of “culture” before Gadhafi came to power. Cinema, theater, press, literature, clubs, music, sports. Formula One racing, by the way, was a motor racing event first held in 1925 on a racing circuit outside Tripoli. So, if I can characterize the culture of Libya in that period of time, I would say: vivid, open, tolerant; a liberal and colorful culture.
Unfortunately, all the cultural infrastructure which was built before Gadhafi is gone now. Gadhafi, as you have seen yourself in Tripoli, has left no cinema, no theater, no music, and no education at all. Gadhafi understood the power of culture, and therefore he cut off all the roots of the culture.
To rebuild that culture again will take time. To get out of this misery, I think, we need an open-minded people to realize the importance of culture. But at the moment, we do not have many of these open-minded people in Libya, these people open to culture—these who firmly believe that culture is very important. We need them now. Culture is now as important as food and water.
Culture contains history, politics, literature, arts, theater. That’s what culture means to me. I think it’s a huge task to rebuild this.
Guernica: You say Gadhafi cut off the roots of the culture. One thing you showed me in Tripoli was that the roots of the culture, as you define it, ran very deep in some places. The city is layered and ancient, architecturally and culturally. All kinds of different people have lived in the city over the years. We went to the archaeological museum. We saw the astonishing Roman remains from the city of Leptis Magna. Huge statues and amphitheaters. As a visitor, then, it felt to me that some of this culture is still there. It it a question of somehow reconnecting with this?
Salah Al Haddad: You are right, of course. Libya does have a rich culture. In particular a great history of theater. But culture needs people who are really willing to rebuild the country and to reconnect the country to its roots, historically, culturally, socially, politically. I don’t think at the moment we have that kind of people. I think it will take at least two generations to realize again how culture is important. And that comes through education. And education has been destroyed completely. It will take time. It is a matter of generations.
Guernica: So what does this mean for you as a writer? What’s your job as a writer in that context?
Salah Al Haddad: In this context my job or responsibility is to guide my people to this importance of culture. And somehow to rebuild the culture again. This is one of the responsibilities as a Libyan. I have to play a role in education. We all have to play a role.
Every revolution in the world is made by heroes and stolen by bastards—we in Libya have that kind of sense of history.
Guernica: Another thing that I noticed, an impression I had in Tripoli, was that in the face of all the difficulties you described, there’s also a lot of positive feeling. I don’t know how accurate or impartial that is, but I felt that in the parts of the city I saw, in that very short visit, that there were signs of a kind of sense of purpose. There were the tents in Martyr’s square where people gather to make statements and protest. We saw posters of the martyrs of the revolution, to remind people of what had been accomplished and why it was important to make a revolution succeed. We saw signs like this of people who wanted to make the new Libya work. I wanted to ask you whether that impression of optimism that I came away with is a fair impression.
Salah Al Haddad: People are still optimistic about the future of Libya. They find ways of expressing themselves. Every revolution in the world is made by heroes and stolen by bastards—we in Libya have that kind of sense of history. When you see bad people control or trying to be in the political scene again—
Guernica: —People trying to come back into the political scene who had been there before?
Salah Al Haddad: Yes. You see this and it will make you frustrated. And this is why some people are very frustrated now. They feel the revolution has been stolen or hijacked by some of the scumbags that were supposed to be finished with the Arab Spring. People say the revolution eats its sons, its children. Revolution is a very long process. It takes years and years. And you have to be aware of what’s going on around you. To be alert to it. And the possibility of stealing this revolution is very high. People have to be conscious of this.
But now there is the promise of change. And with the promise of change—the uprising, the revolution—every writer here hopes that they will find more space to write about their Libya, about their cultural history. The big hope is on the new generation of writers, and on the future. Since I came back to Libya I have seen some young writers have had their work published such as Nahla Alarbi and Ahmed Albukhari—both having their debut novel published in Libya this year—along with other novelists who were living in exile like Faraj Alasha and Mujahed Albusaifi. If the country settles down politically, and sorts out its Constitution—is able to protect freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience—once you’ve got that clear, I think that the future of literature and culture in Libya will be very bright.
I feel that I am not writing from a distance any more. To write in Libya means you are close to your people. You’re writing from reality… The other beautiful thing is that your people feel that they’re close to you. There’s no kind of hierarchy. The writer is not on the outside.
Guernica: And in terms of your own work—how has your experience of life as a writer changed after the revolution, since going back to Libya?
Salah Al Haddad: There is, in myself, a feeling of optimism being back in my country after eighteen years. I am conscious of dangers but I am somehow optimistic. That’s the first thing. Second thing, I feel that I am not writing from a distance anymore. To write in Libya means you are close to your people. You’re writing from reality. The descriptions, the details, they can be accurate and true. The other beautiful thing is that your people feel that they’re close to you. There’s no kind of hierarchy. The writer is not on the outside. When I was in Ireland, Libyans could imagine that because I was safe, or because I was secured, because I had space to speak, I could tell them in my fiction, books, articles, what was wrong and what was right. This kind of hierarchy is destroyed when you live among your people. Instead of telling them what is what, you are suffering or rejoicing with them. And now that we have got rid of Gadhafi, writers here can seek out other audiences. Readers across the world. Now more than ever, it is important to speak to other readers.
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